Focal Points Blog

What to Do About Somalia

SomaliaNow that the violence of Somalia has spilled over into Uganda, western policymakers and pundits are suddenly all aflutter with the urge to ‘do something’. Exactly what that something might be is uncertain. Drone attacks, special forces, a Gaza-like blockade and even a full scale invasion have been suggested.

All of those are truly terrible ideas – and exactly the kind of legacy thinking that caused the US to hug the tar baby called IrAfPak. At best, they will generate yet another failure / quagmire, and expand the ever growing pool of pissed off people who want to car bomb Times Square. At worst, they could invite a ‘fifth column’ type of resistance on the part of the Somali diaspora and sympathizers, spreading conflict across the region and beyond. (Somewhere between 40% and 50% of ethnic Somalis live outside the country.)

Instead of pursuing the same old failed policies, the way to resolve intractable problems is to expand the ‘solution space’ – the range of available options. Solution space is determined by the perspectives – which we might also call beliefs, paradigms or ‘mental models’ – of the players involved. Because we can only act on ideas that get through our political / cultural / personal filters, the way to achieve breakthrough is to broaden our perspectives in order to see a wider range of possibilities.

Here are five perspectives that could begin to shift the situation in Somalia.

1 – Disaggregate It

Somalia is not really a country in the way westerners typical apply the concept. Like Afghanistan, it is a collection of tribes and clans that alternately compete and collaborate, spread across arbitrary boundaries imposed by colonial powers. (Somalia’s borders are a result of combining Northern Somalia, which was a British ‘trusteeship’, with Southern Somalia, which was an Italian ‘protectorate’, to form the Somali Republic. French Somaliland to the north became Djibouti.)

Even though lines on maps are somehow sacred to most policymakers, they should be ignored here. So long as the US and its allies see Somalia as a single, troubled country controlled by radical Islamists, they will suffer ‘path dependency’, stuck forever with only the limited range of lousy options noted above.

‘Chunking’ the issues – seeing Somalia as a diverse jumble of players, areas and interests – would allow adaptive responses based more on objective realities and less on stereotypes. It would also allow distributed, locally appropriate interventions and innovations that could be rapidly prototyped to see whether and how they might scale and extend.

Perspective 2 – Reinforce the Positive

There are areas of Somalia that work reasonably well (by local standards), and those should be engaged and fostered. The Republic of Somaliland, in the northwest, is relatively stable and continues to move toward a constitutional democracy, including holding what outside observers consider free and fair municipal, parliamentary, and presidential elections.

Puntland, which includes the ‘horn’ of Africa, declared itself an ‘autonomous state’ in 1998 and has been relatively stable since. (Again, by local standards. It’s not Sweden.) Puntland has worked to diversify its economy and made education a government priority, especially for girls and the nomadic clans that make up roughly half the population. Early childhood development is also a high priority.

Engaging these regions with targeted aid and development efforts would increase their stability, and demonstrate that westerners are not the enemy of Somalis. Even more important, it would demonstrate to Somalis in war torn areas that there is hope. Nothing is more destabilizing to a regime than rising or falling expectations, and increasing stability and prosperity in the north could provide a severe challenge to Al-Shabaab, the Islamist movement dominating south-central Somalia.

The reactionary, ‘crisis management’ focus on distressed areas in the south and center of the country causes neglect of the more stable north and west. That neglect creates openings for parasitic entities. Both pirates and human traffickers operate openly in Puntland, and can be displaced only by developing viable, alternative livelihoods.

Perspective 3 – Open Lines of Communication

Complexity science tells us that structures are relationships made visible. In order to create new structures – which will then generate new patterns of events and behaviors – the US needs to create new relationships.

Obviously, this can be difficult – especially for politicians who have staked out positions based on simplistic jingoism, like ‘Islamofascism’ and ‘Global War on Terror’. But it has been done successfully in equally difficult situations. When Nelson Mandela was criticized by members of his own party for talking to the de Klerk government, he said, ‘If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.’

Although the US despises the Al Shabaab movement, that entity currently controls much of the south and center of the Somalia. If the US truly wants to change the situation on the ground, it needs to get past its prejudice and work with Al Shabaab. Despite competing ideologies, both sides have some common ground and can find ways to work together. As trust and relationships grow, deeper issues can be addressed.

Perspective 4 – Think Governance, Not Government

Despite western claims, there is no legitimate government in Somalia. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has no writ beyond a few square blocks in Mogadishu, and would quickly disappear were it not protected by Ugandan and Burundian troops under the auspices of the African Mission on Somalia (AMISOM).

The TFG is the fourteenth attempt to impose a functioning government in Somalia since the end of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. Like many other iterations, it is largely seen by locals as a shill for Ethiopia and the US, and has been accused by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of chronic rape, murder, looting and theft. Backing it lends no credence to western claims of promoting human rights and democracy.

Encouraging Al Shabaab to govern well – rather than attempting to subvert that governance – is a more effective strategy. If they succeed and bring forth order and development, everyone wins. If they fail and destroy their own legitimacy in the eyes of the Somali people, they will be deposed – without resentment against outsiders and the potential for blowback that engenders.

Perspective 5 – Get Over the Fear of ‘isms’

Just as America’s fear of communism stampeded it to make disastrous decisions regarding China, Viet Nam, Iran and a host of other nations, its fear of Islam drives stupid and self-defeating policy regarding Somalia.

It was this fear of Islamism that caused western nations to sponsor the 2006 invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia to defeat the relatively moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU) when that group seemed about to consolidate power. By toppling the ICU, the US and its allies created a vacuum that was filled by the ICU’s military wing. Today that movement is called Al Shabaab, and America rails against the very situation it helped create.

The fact is, Somalia is a Muslim country, in a Muslim region. It is only logical that Islamic values and tradition frame discussions of the country’s future. (Even the TFG ‘president’ offers his degree in Islamic Law as a primary qualification for the job.)

If US policymakers truly want to help stabilize the situation in Somalia, they need to get past their pathological fear of all things Islamic. In fact, they should encourage all sides to practice fundamental tenets of Islam, including devotional activity, simplicity, charity, humility, patience, and consistency.

Muslims believe that through such practices believers become more whole, peaceful, loving and compassionate. These virtues, as they become living attributes, evolve into a state of higher consciousness called fana.

Somalia – and the world – should be so lucky.

Torpedoing Conventional Thinking on the Cheonan

Cheonan, North Korea, South KoreaThe narrative around the Mar. 26 sinking of the South Korean Navy Corvette Cheonan, and the death of 46 sailors, seems pretty straightforward: the ship was sunk by a North Korean (DPRK) torpedo. That was the conclusion by a South Korean (ROK) panel of 47 military and military-research experts and three international representatives. The only question left unanswered was the DPRK’s motive, with fallout from an internal power struggle holding the inside track.

But two researchers from the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University are suggesting there may have been a rush to judgment, and that the evidence presented by the panel is deeply flawed. Seunghun Lee, a professor of physics at Virginia, and J.J. Suh, an associate professor of Korean Studies at Johns Hopkins, have analyzed the findings of the Joint Civil-Military Investigation Group (JIG) and found them wanting.

The JIG concluded that the Cheonan was ripped in two by an external explosion from a North Korean torpedo, which ROK naval units recovered. But according to Lee and Suh, those conclusions are “riddled with such serious flaws as to render the JIG’s conclusion unsustainable.” They even suggest that some of the X-ray data used to tie the torpedo to the explosion “may have been fabricated.”

Americans who watch television saw a sobering re-creation of the event in which an exploding torpedo’s powerful bubble destroyed a similar sized ship. But according to the two authors, the South Korean Navy has not been able to “produce a bubble simulation consistent with the information presented in the JIG report.” The simulations run by the JIG instead show a bubble forming, striking the ship, deforming the hull, and making a small rupture, not tearing the ship in half.

According to the authors, “If the bottom of the ship was hit by a bubble, it should show a spherical concave deformation resembling the shape of a bubble, as the JIG’s own simulation suggests, but it does not.” Instead, the damage seems more consistent with a “collision with a hard object.”

What is also missing is any sign of what is called the “pre-bubble shock wave,” nor does internal damage and crew casualties appear to be consistent with those inflicted by a shock wave.

Lee and Suh also take issue with the chemical and X-ray analysis of the residue on the hull that the JIG found to be consistent with the chemical signature of an explosion caused by the recovered torpedo. According to the authors, the “critical evidence” used by the JIG “to link the Cheonan sinking to the alleged explosion of the torpedo is scientifically groundless and perhaps fabricated.”

The two researchers also question the torpedo itself, and particularly a blue ink marking on the weapon spelling out “Hangul “in Korean. The torpedo’s deeply corroded surface is consistent with an explosion that would burn off the weapon’s protective paint. The only problem is that ink boils at a much lower point than paint, 150 degrees Celsius and 350 degrees Celsius respectively. “This inconsistency—the high heat tolerant paint was burnt but the low heat tolerant ink was not—cannot be explained and casts serious doubt on the integrity of the torpedo as ‘critical evidence,’” write the two authors.

“While we emphatically note that our findings do not prove that North Korea did not do it, we conclude that the JIG has failed to prove that it did,” the authors argue. “The seriousness of the inconsistencies in fact casts doubt not only on the validity of the JIG conclusions but also on the integrity of its investigation.”

If North Korea didn’t sink the ship, who did? Maybe it was not a “who but a “what.” Some of the damage is consistent with a collision. Is there damage that might indicate an internal explosion? The DPRK certainly has a history of doing provocative things, but part of that reputation comes from the relentless demonization of Pyongyang. The North Koreans have always shown an affection for bombast, but they have been generally careful not to do something that would provoke a war.

It may turn out that the North Koreans did sink the Cheonan, but the evidence is hardly the slam-dunk it has been represented as in the media. And doubts about the DPRK’s guilt may well explain China’s reluctance to join in the pile-on condemnations of Pyongyang, as well as for the careful wording of the recent United Nations resolution that condemned the incident but avoided assigning blame.

What is clear is that in-house investigations are always open to suspicion. No matter what the Israeli’s handpicked panel to investigate the attack on a Turkish ship comes up with, it will have no credibility outside of Israel.

Lee and Suh conclude that “given the inconsistencies” of the JIG investigation, the South Korean government should “re-open the investigation and form a new, and more objective” investigation. “The dead sailors deserve such a report. So does the international community.”

Visit Conn’s blog, Dispatches from the Edge.

Finally, a Forum for Victims of the “Wars on Drugs”

When was the last time you heard of a drug user, or a coca grower, or even a mother of a drug addict testifying at a U.S. congressional hearing on drug policy? The sad reality is that those most affected by drugs and drug policies – from urban youth in the slums of Lima to coca farmers in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley – are for the most part excluded from the drug policy debate. This is true not only in the United States, but across the globe.

Take the United Nations, for example. At the 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), a coalition of civil society organizations fought long and hard to have alternative voices heard from the official podium. In the end, a Colombian woman from a coca growing town in the Guaviare region of Colombia and a representative of U.S. drug users were given 5 minutes each. Ten years later, when a mandated review of the UNGASS took place, a similar effort failed. Such voices could be heard among the protestors outside the UN compound in Vienna, Austria, but they were not given an official platform at the meeting. Those who most needed to hear alternative points of view were deaf to the voices outside.

Yet listening to those from the communities most affected by drug use, drug related violence and corruption, and the negative impact of drug policies themselves is crucial to developing sound public policies. And without listening to their voices, the human side of the story is lost.

Perhaps one of the groups most excluded from the policy debate are low-level offenders or those who are unknowingly used as drug couriers and who end up in jail, with sentences that are usually greatly disproportionate to the crime committed. Incarceration and long-term jail sentences affect not only those incarcerated, but also their spouses, children and communities. When they are released from prison, these individuals face the same lack of socio-economic opportunities that may have led them to get involved in the drug business in the first place, compounded by the fact that they now have criminal records.

In listening to their stories, two things become clear. First, the “drug war” can be profoundly unjust, with harsh mandatory minimum and tough sentencing laws – often combined with extremely abusive prison conditions – that are in direct contradiction of established international human rights norms. And second, addressing the roots of the drug issue is not simply a matter of law enforcement, but necessitates broader public policies, including policies that focus on the lack of economic opportunity for a growing number of urban and rural poor, particularly youth.

To bring the human face of the “drug war” into the policy debate, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) released two videos this week with interviews of women incarcerated on drug charges.

One is filmed in Mexico, where the Mexican government has launched an all-out war on the drug cartels, leading to unprecedented levels of violence. Nonetheless, the vast majority of those imprisoned on drug charges are low-level offenders or consumers – not those connected to the cartels that we read about every day in the press. Mexican jails are bursting at the seams with those from the most vulnerable sectors of Mexican society, while the drug trade remains alive and well.

As reported by WOLA and TNI:

In this video, Rosa Julia Leyva Martinez tells the story of how one day in 1993, she decided to travel from her home state of Guerrero to Mexico City. According to her testimony, a few people she knew from her town convinced her to travel with them, and without her knowledge, had her carry a bag with heroine inside through airport security. She says that she was tortured into signing a confession and as a result spent close to 11 years in prison. In this video Rosa Leyva comes to the following conclusion: “I think I finally accepted what that judge and that criminologist said ‘I don’t care if they tricked you, if you were a victim of a thousand and one things, what matters to me is that you were carrying it, and this is what matters for my sentence.’ And I thought to myself, what brought Rosa Julia Leyva to jail? I was brought because of ignorance, social-cultural isolation, hunger, a thousand and one reasons.”

Watch Drugs and Prison in Mexico:

The second video is filmed at the El Inca women’s prison in Quito, Ecuador. That country has one of the harshest drug laws in the hemisphere: Sentences for drug offences range from 12 to 25 years, whereas the maximum sentence for murder is 16. As a result, a non-violent drug offender can receive a higher sentence than someone who has committed murder. The Correa government is seeking to reform Ecuador’s drug law, but in the meantime, the existing law continues to be implemented.

Again, as reported by WOLA and TNI:

In this video, Analia Silva says she started dealing drugs out of poverty. She explains that she did not even know the type of drugs she was selling; that she only knew that being the sole provider of her two children, and she needed to make ends meet. She was caught in 2003 and sentenced to 8 years in jail. In the video she comes to the following conclusion: “When they sentenced me, and it’s the same for every woman they sentence, they not only sentence the person who committed the crime, they also sentence their family, they also sentence their children. […] [Authorities] don’t realize that they want to get rid of crime, but they are the ones promoting it because if they [the children] are left alone… what can they do? Go and steal… my daughter would become a prostitute, my son would become a drug addict, deal drugs, sell drugs.”

Watch Drugs and Prisons in Ecuador:

(Or go to Vimeo itself.)

While the videos were released without much fanfare, they quickly became a bit of a media sensation in Latin America – much to the surprise of those involved in their production. An EFE story with links to the video was reproduced in numerous places and mainstream media that has traditionally backed present drug policies picked up the story. The two most important newspapers in Lima, Peru (El Comercio and La Republica) gave the videos significant coverage, as did the leading daily El Universal in Mexico. In Colombia, both El Tiempo and Semana reported on the videos’ release. Semana’s front page coverage (including links to the videos) was picked up by non-other than Colombian rock superstar, Juanes – who has close to a million followers in Twitter and another million followers on Facebook – who tweeted the videos and linked to them from his website. Twenty-four hours later, more than 500 people had commented on the videos on his Facebook page.

So in the end, these two moving stories of “drug war” injustices may have had more immediate impact in raising awareness of the collateral damage of the so-called war on drugs than the detailed policy analysis that NGOs tend to churn out. And the audience reached went beyond policy wonks to Juanes fans across Latin America. Maybe hearing more stories like those of Rosa Julia and Analia is what we need to bring about much needed drug policy reform.

Israel: Warped Mirrors and White House Sofas

Israeli settlers protestIf anyone had doubts about the outcome of recent talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barak Obama, they were put to rest July 13 when Israeli authorities demolished three Palestinian houses and announced the construction of 32 new homes in East Jerusalem. According to the British Guardian, “A further 48 housing units are expected to be approved next week.”

So much for the “freeze” on evictions and settlement building; so much for the “peace process.” According to Jeff Halper of the International Committee against Home Demolitions, “The rule of thumb in this part of the world is that in the run-up to the U.S. elections Israel has a free hand. Israel is now taking advantage of that.”

The collapse of the “freeze”—which wasn’t a freeze in any case because it did not cover East Jerusalem or “existing settlements”—will spike any negotiations between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinians, and accelerate Israel’s take-over of the West Bank. According to a recent study by the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, that process is rapidly reaching the point of no return.

The B’Tselem report found that settlers now control 42 percent of the West Bank, far more than was previously thought, and much of the land seized from private Palestinian landowners. Any settlement land in the Occupied Territories is considered a violation of international law, but taking privately owned land also contravenes rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court.

“The settlement enterprise has been characterized, since its inception, by an instrumental, cynical, and even criminal approach to international law, local legislation, Israeli military orders, and Israeli law, which has enabled the continuous pilfering of land from Palestinians in the West Bank,” the report states.

Settler councils have either fenced off or designated massive tracts of land for future expansion, and they have seized 21 percent of the privately owned land on the West Bank. This drive to take over the entire West Bank has been greatly aided by Israeli government policies, including subsidized housing, tax breaks, bypass roads, and the seizure of scarce water resources.

Israeli groups that oppose the settler expansion, or are critical of government policies vis-à-vis Gaza, are finding themselves increasingly under fire. In recent months demonstrators have been arrested for peacefully assembling and picketing, and a bill that demonizes non-governmental organizations (NGO) that accused the government of war crimes during the 2008-09 “Cast Lead” operation in Gaza is working its way through the Knesset.

The bill would outlaw any NGO that provides information to foreign or international organization, like the United Nations, that results in a charge of war crimes. When the Israeli government refused to cooperate with the UN’s investigation of Cast Lead, groups like B’Tselem provided about 14 percent of the information that eventually went into the Goldstone Report. The Report found that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes.

According to the Forward, “The proposed legislation would apply to NGOs that provide information directly to accusers, or to NGOs that put information in the public domain that leads to such accusations.”

Some 17 Knesset members from the Kadima Party and other right-wing parties have signed on to the legislation. Some observers say it has little chance of passing, but that will depend on the position of the government.

“Instead of defending democracy, the sponsors of this bill prefer to reduce it to ashes,” reads a statement signed by 10 human rights NGOs.

Polls show the legislation—ram-rodded by Kadima Knesset member Ronit Tirosh—has support. A Tel Aviv University survey found that 57.6 percent thought that NGOs that exposed “immoral conduct” by Israel should not be allowed “to operate freely.”

There is a growing chasm “between the slogans like, ’Israel is a great democracy,’ and ‘the army is the most moral in the world’—and the reality,” says Professor Daniel Bar-Tal who conducted the poll. Israelis, he says, “do not look in the mirror” and do not wish to be reminded by NGOs about their image. The result, he says, is that “the foundations” of democracy in the country are under siege.

The mood to pull the wagons in a circle has helped revive a push by right-wing Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to cancel Israeli citizenship for the country’s 1.3 million Arabs, and transfer them to a “Palestinian state.” The plan—which would violate international law—was first proposed in 2003, but then shelved. In the current atmosphere, Lieberman has dusted it off and put it back on the agenda.

The Obama Administration says Netanyahu accepts a two-state solution, but the Prime Minister has filled his pledge with so many caveats that there appears little possibility that such an entity could ever appear under his government. Indeed, his national security advisor and close friend, Uzi Arad, recently attacked the “magic” of the two-state solution and told a meeting of the Jewish Agency, “The more you market Palestinian legitimacy, the more you bring about a detraction of Israel’s legitimacy.”

Israel has never been so isolated internationally. Several nations recalled their ambassadors in the aftermath of the Israeli commando raid on the Gaza flotilla, and leading politicians, including Kadima leader Tzipi Livini and Vice Prime Minister Mosche Ya’alon, have decided to curb travel to Britain because they fear an arrest warrant.

This isolation is likely to get worse with the Goldstone Report coming before the UN’s General Assembly in late July and Turkey assuming the chair of the Security Council in September.

The current Israeli leadership is a major part of the problem. “Ever since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Israel has been ruled by one of the stupidest and least responsible leaderships in the world. Their failings have been masked by propaganda and by Israel’s American insurance policy,” says the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn.

Cockburn points out that the last Israeli military victory was the 1973 war against Syria and Egypt, and that over the past 37 years Israel has lurched from one failure to another. “Israel’s only victories these days are won on the sofa of the White House.”

The reason, he argues, “is that Israelis believe their own propaganda and their supporters abroad adopt a skewed view of events as if it was an article of faith. Israelis, leaders and followers alike, acquire a wholly distorted picture of the world around them. Hubris breeds self-righteousness and arrogance robs Israel of friends and allies and repeatedly leads its leaders to underestimate their enemies.”

None of that is likely to be changed by refusing to look in the mirror or by killing the NGO messenger.

Visit Conn’s blog, Dispatches from the Edge.

U.S.-Iran: Small Voice of Optimism, Deafening Chorus of Dread

Israel Air ForceAt Arms Control Wonk, Jeffrey Lewis linked to an article that provides a glimmer of hope in U.S.-Iran relations. Stephanie Cooke is the editor of Uranium Intelligence Weekly. (Right beside Entertainment Weekly on my night table.) In a piece sporting the tantalizing tltle, US May Drop Insistence That Iranians Shut Down Natanz — Eventually, she points out: “A little-noticed modification in its [new] National Security Strategy (NSS) document allows the US more flexibility in negotiations over Iran’s enrichment activities.”

The new NSS “no longer states, as did the 2006 NSS, that a key US nonproliferation objective is ‘to keep states from acquiring the capability to produce fissile material suitable for making nuclear weapons.’ The new document . . . says only that: ‘The United States will pursue the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and work to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.’” Iran “need only meet its ‘international obligations on its nuclear program’ to enjoy ‘greater political and economic integration with the international community.’” Meanwhile, it’s already “proposing discussion questions for talks, rather than setting conditions.”

Elsewhere, though, prognostications have turned as dire as they were at the peak of the Bush administration. For example, Foreign Policy in Focus’s own Conn Hallinan writes at Focal Points (and at AlterNet):

“According to the [Jerusalem] Post, [Israeli] supplies were unloaded June 18 and 19 outside the Saudi city of Tabuk, and. … an ‘anonymous American defense official’ claimed that Mossad chief Meir Dagan was the contact man with Saudi Arabia and had briefed Netanyahu on the plans.

“The Gulf Daily News reported June 26 that Israel has moved warplanes to Georgia and Azerbaijan, which would greatly shorten the distance Israeli planes would have to fly to attack targets in northern Iran. The U.S currently has two aircraft carriers . . . plus more than a dozen support vessels in the Gulf of Hormuz. … The rhetoric is getting steamy, the weapons are moving into position, and it is beginning to feel like ‘The Guns of August’ in the Middle East.”

As usual, along with Israel, U.S. hawks are largely responsible for turning up the temperature on said rhetoric. Jim Lobe reports at Asia Times Online that “a familiar clutch of Iraq war hawks appear to be preparing the ground for a major new campaign to rally public opinion behind military action against the Islamic Republic.” If ever a bunch deserved the term “the usual suspects,” they include aging neocons like Stephen Hadley, John Bolton, and William Kristol. The hawks, Lobe writes . . .

“. . . also pounced on reported remarks made by United Arab Emirates ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba at a retreat sponsored by The Atlantic magazine in Colorado last week to nullify another obstacle to military action — the widespread belief that Washington’s Arab allies oppose a military attack on Iran by the US or Israel as too risky for their own security and regional stability. ‘We cannot live with a nuclear Iran,’ Otaiba was quoted as saying.”

Special shout-out to the Atlantic for the nobility it showed by sacrificing its good name for a cause it (apparently) believes in! Meanwhile, let’s not forget the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which, Lobe reports, declared that most Arab officials “desperately want someone, and that means the US or Israel, to stop [Iran], using force if need be.”

But how could the Israeli Air Force reach Iran without being intercepted or shot down? Also at ATimes, David Moon explains in a widely read piece.

“Overflight of Iraq on a direct bearing to Iran is out of the question. Such a path would cause friction between the US, responsible for Iraq’s aerial sovereignty, and the next Iraqi government. … The likely route to Iran . . . is to fly a great circle around Iraq. … For this route, almost every applicable IAF logistics and support asset would be utilized.

The first leg for [IAF] fighter bombers is a low-level run up the Mediterranean [when tankers would] top up the tanks of the strike group. … To skirt Turkish airspace and the ability of the Turkish military to raise an alarm [to NATO], the strike group [would be accompanied by an aircraft [that] ferrets out air defense radars. [Another] beams a data stream containing . . . a ‘worm’ into air defense radars with the capability of incapacitating an entire air defense network.”

You get the idea — the highest of high-tech.

In a third ATimes article, Victor Kotsev agrees that, “By most accounts, a cataclysm is approaching. The situation, according to analyst Tony Badran, is ‘arguably similar to the one immediately preceding the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.’” But how could an attack not end badly for the West? Kotsev explains.

“. . . the Iranian regime could be quickly humiliated and weakened, its nuclear program set back by many years, and its international isolation deepened. In this case, seething internal tensions would eventually lead to regime change in the Islamic Republic. … such a development would [give] Obama much needed leverage to push through an Arab-Israeli peace agreement [which] would make Netanyahu more prone to compromise. Hamas would be left adrift.”

From neocon wish list to wishful thinking . . . do you ever get the feeling that nations go to war just because they can’t stand the suspense of having an incipient war hanging over their heads? They just want the tension to cease and desist. What better way to remove the ongoing pressure of what also amounts to temptation than to give in to it?

Israel: World’s Most Aggressive Ebay Bidders

You may have heard of Budrus, a documentary about nonviolent resistance in the West Bank town of the same name soon to make its U.S. debut. In the course of a commentary on the film at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Hugh Gusterson writes that when it comes to dealing with Palestine, Israel is all about the bidding up.

“Israel follows an escalatory strategy of violence. … Whatever resistance the Palestinians attempt is treated as a bid that the Israelis must counter. [For example, if] the resistance is non-violent, the response is tear gas, nightsticks, and rubber bullets. … The theory seems to be that the exercise of violence is like bidding at an auction and that the Palestinians, once they see they are outbid, will, like a good rational actor, fold their hand. …

“But Palestinians . . . are not rational actors. … They are enraged and humiliated human beings who are embittered by life under collective punishment and determined not to surrender the one thing left to them: the ability to resist. Unless Israel wants an endless emergency, a permanent cycle of violence, their Palestinian strategy is failing miserably.”

To show why it’s failing, Gusterson circles back to Palestinian terrorists.

“. . . Budrus dramatizes the no-win situation within which Israel has imprisoned the Palestinians. If the Palestinians resist the occupation with violence . . . they are shot at, imprisoned, blockaded, their homes destroyed — and their land is taken away, bite by bite. If, as in Budrus, they resist with non-violence . . . they are tear-gassed, beaten, shot at with rubber bullets — and their land is taken away, bite by bite.”

A rigged auction, in other words.

Think Tanks Are Rolling Over Moderate Republicans

“[A] divide has emerged between the ‘realist’ wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment and its more radical right-wing counterpart. The debate over nuclear policy has demonstrated that the latter now essentially dominates the institutional apparatus of right-wing foreign policy thinking.”

. . . writes Robert Farley at at IPS’s own Right Web in a piece he quotes on his own Lawyers, Guns and Money (as reproduced at the Progressive Realist). He’s demonstrating how Mitt Romney‘s infamous anti-START op-ed reflects that trend. More:

Many of the moderate Republicans who favored arms control and engagement with the Soviet Union [such as] Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, and George Schultz have [failed to develop] an extensive base within the institutional right wing, the constellation of independent organizations and foundations (including the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute) that have emerged as key players in internal Republican Party debates.

In his Lawyers, Guns and Money post, Farley concludes that . . .

. . . it’s worth additional investigation to determine why [the moderates] were so helpless in the face of the dire fanatics when it came to developing an institutional [think-tank] base. I suspect that at least part of the answer is personality based; Baker and Scowcroft, for example, seem to have eschewed institution building in favor of cultivating an elite consensus. For whatever reason, [the moderates'] strategy has failed utterly to steer the last ten years of foreign policy production in the Republican Party.

I imagine hawkish Republican think tanks rumbling over the countryside flattening everything — whether former friend or foe — in their path.

Iran Sanctions a Slap in the Face to Other Countries Too

Iran Turkey Brazil nuclear fuelIn a Washington Post op-ed, former Senator Charles Robb and retired General Charles Wald — the Chuck & Chuck show — align themselves with those for whom sanctions against Iran are not enough. It’s not that they don’t welcome the sanctions that President Obama signed against companies that provide gasoline to Iran, as well as again financial institutions that handle Iran’s nuclear transactions. But without “a broader and more robust strategy. . .” they write, “sanctions alone will prove inadequate to halt Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. … Similarly, even many supporters of the new U.S. law acknowledge that without multilateral participation and enforcement, Iran will continue to evade many of these new U.S. restrictions and acquire gasoline . . . beyond the reach of U.S. law.”

First, no matter how targeted sanctions are, the ruling classes always seem to find a way to pass the hardships they cause along to the public. Besides, it’s true that sanctions are as unlikely to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons as they are Burma from improving its human rights record (or, for that matter, developing nuclear weapons as well).

As Alastair Crooke wrote at Foreign Policy: “No one really believes sanctions will force a change in Iranian policy; nor will they improve the chances of renewing real negotiations.” But the “single-minded furor to impose these sanctions. … speaks to us about something other than Iran.” In part, “the rush to sanctions [was] hurried forward to torpedo the Turkish and Brazilian” nuclear fuel swap deal those states brokered with Iran.

This “speaks to us about rising American fears . . . about the evaporation of deference toward American leadership, and the concern about the rise of ‘the new powers.’ In fact, Crooke notes, the “bringing forward of sanctions were intended to ‘stiff’ two of these new powers — Brazil and Turkey.” [Emphasis added.]

While many of us on the left agree with Chuck & Chuck that sanctions will once again prove ineffective, few of us would see eye to eye with them about a solution: “The stakes are too high to rely on sanctions and diplomacy without credibly preparing for a potential military strike as well.”

Then they add: “We cannot fall prey to the inertia of resignation.” If I were charitable, I wouldn’t have included that last line. It’s just too funny, though, how flat their attempt at a rallying cry falls. Even more humorous — in a vein as bleak as it is unwitting — they write:

“An even more likely scenario, however, is that Israel would first attack Iranian nuclear facilities, triggering retaliatory strikes by Iran and its terrorist proxies. This would put the United States in an extremely difficult position. [It] could be dragged into a major confrontation at a time not of its choosing.”

Do you catch their meaning? The United States should bomb Iran to keep Israel from bombing Iran. I think we’ve caught Chuck & Chuck in a true “Are you even listening to yourselves?” moment. All frivolity aside, it’s discouraging that in the 21st century a strategy such as bombing Iran is being discussed in U.S. policy circles. It’s just so, I don’t know, stone age.

Meanwhile consider what the New America Foundation’s Michael Lind wrote at Salon in How I learned to stop worrying and live with the bomb.

“Genuine great power status today requires massive, expensive conventional forces. Iran would be much more alarming if instead of trying to obtain nuclear weapons it were building up a first-rate navy, a long-distance air force and an enormous army capable of occupying one or more of its neighbors. The fact that it is not doing so suggests that the nuclear weapons capability it evidently seeks is for deterrence, not offense.”

I’m the last one to make excuses, as some progressives actually do, for Iran developing nuclear weapons. But if the world is doomed to grow ever more nuclear, Lind’s observation can be the source of some small measure of solace.

Middle East: What’s Hot — North, What’s Not — South

The title, no doubt chosen by the editors of the Washington Quarterly, is corny at best, stereotypical at worst. But the article itself, The Shifting Sands of State Power in the Middle East by Alastair Crooke of Conflicts Forum, couldn’t be more enlightening. Thanks to Paul Woodward at War in Context for alerting us to the piece, which we present in digest form. [All emphases added.]

Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Syria — nothing has been exactly easy for U.S. policymakers this past year. … In a sense, the president is facing the consequences of three key events that took place in the region more than 20 years ago. … the implosion of the Soviet Union, the military defeat of Iraq in 1991 [and the 1992] overthrow of the Ben-Gurion doctrine [in which Israel allied] itself with the region’s non-Arab periphery, namely Ethiopia, Iran, Lebanon, and Turkey.

[Among the consequences] is that the United States’ old allies in the ‘”southern tier” — namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia — are likely to wield less influence in the future. The “northern tier” — which includes Turkey along with Iran, Qatar, Syria, and possibly Iraq and Lebanon — represents the nascent “axis of influence.”

On Turkey . . .

[P]otentially balancing the rising power of Tehran in the future. … Turkey had been the “wing” state of NATO for 44 years — at the Soviet Union’s periphery, it was in charge of containing communism. … Ahmet Davutoglu, the architect of Turkey’s new stance and now its foreign minister, argued in his 2001 book, Strategic Depth, that Turkey no longer needed to be NATO’s wing state [and should instead] position itself at the pivotal point between Asia, Europe, and the Middle East [using] its unique geography and history to its own advantage.

On Israel-Palestine . . .

[When] U.S. policymakers indicate that it was unrealistic . . . to ever expect Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to be able to freeze settlement expansion, this is seen widely as confirmation that the settlement project has now become irreversible. In other words . . . no Israeli prime minister can aspire to reverse the settlements.

The unraveling of [the Oslo process] naturally weakens U.S. allies within the region, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia [who] have justified their alliance with the United States, and warded off internal dissent, [with] the receding prospects of the realization of a Palestinian state.

On Syria . . .

[The] ascent of Iran as well as Turkey more or less at the expense of Egypt and Saudi Arabia . . . forms the background to Syria’s re-entry into the mainstream of Arab politics as a key figure in a new regional alliance. … Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 . . .

. . . not only to consolidate its position there, but also to realize the goal of its commander, Ariel Sharon, to bring about the fall of [Hafez al-Assad] in Syria.

At this point, [Assad] made a strategic alliance: he linked with his fellow Shi’a . . . in Lebanon and with Ayatollah Sayyed Khomeini of Iran. This . . . enabled the Shi’a movements in Lebanon to successfully resist Israeli and U.S. ambitions there.

[Hafez's son] Bashar al-Assad’s own strategic contribution to Syria, however, has been to recognize Turkey’s aspiration to resume its traditional central position [and to unleash] a cascade of trade and visa alleviation agreements, Syria has opened a window for Turkey into the Sunni Arab world that had effectively been closed since Kamal Ataturk’s time.

On Islam . . .

What is more striking, however, is that much of the new thinking in Islam . . . is taking place outside of the traditional centers of Sunni Arab strength. … Should the northern tier assume some political ascendency in the region, it is not hard to see that the Shi’a orientation, together with the Turkish and other forms of Sufi Islam . . . are likely to gain influence at the expense of literal, dogmatic, and intolerant Islam.

In conclusion . . .

Behind the northern tier’s ascendancy in regional politics lies the perception that Syria and its allies have read the Middle Eastern ground better than the United States and its allies, especially since they — Iran, Syria, and Turkey — judged the Iraq war correctly from the perspective of the region. … More importantly, all three are seen to have read the prospects for a Palestinian state more accurately [and] are in a better position, especially due to their links with Hamas and other Palestinian groups, to be able to craft a comprehensive regional solution.

Ultimately, the United States, as it digests the significance of the region’s shifting strategic balance as well as the drift toward this “other” reading, may well conclude that its true interests lean more toward working with this emergent northern tier than by clinging to its hitherto exclusive reliance on the wobbling platform of U.S. traditional regional allies.

[Also] the political vision of the northern tier is rapidly acquiring a commercial dimension. One key element is the proposed Nabucco gas pipeline, bringing gas from Azerbaijan to central Europe, and probably from the giant South Pars field in Iran through Turkey to Europe. … In this new decade, it seems that the politics of supplying natural gas to the Europeans are likely to eclipse the importance of traditional oil as the touchstone to Middle East politics, which makes a shifting center of gravity toward the northern tier even more likely.

For more about Turkey ascendant, see John Feffer’s Foreign Policy in Focus piece Stealth Superpower.

Africa: No Butter, But Lots of Guns

The developed world has a message for Africa: “Sorry, but we are reneging on our aid pledges made at the G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland back in 2005, but we do have something for you—lots and lots of expensive things that go ‘bang’ and kill people.”

And that was indeed the message that came out of the G8-G20 meetings in Canada last month. The promise to add an extra $25 billion to a $50 billion aid package for the continent went a glimmering. Instead, the G8 will cut the $25 billion to $11 billion and the $50 billion to $38 billion. And don’t hold your breath that Africa will get even that much.

The G8 consists of Britain, the U.S., Germany, France, Italy, Japan, France, and Russia, although Moscow is not part of the aid pledge.

Canada’s Muskoka summit hailed “significant progress toward the millennium development goals”—the United Nations’ target of reducing poverty by 2015—but when it came time to ante up, everyone but the United Kingdom bailed. The Gleneagles pledge was to direct 0.51 percent of the G8’s gross national income to aid programs by 2010. The UK came up to 0.56 percent, but the U.S. is at 0.2, Italy at 0.16, Canada at 0.3, Germany at 0.35, and France at 0.47. Rumor has it that France and Italy led the charge to water down the 2005 goals.

The shortfall, says Oxfam spokesman Mark Fried, is not just a matter of “numbers.” The aid figures “represent vital medicines, kids in school, help for women living in poverty and food for the hungry.”

AIDS activists are particularly incensed. “I see no point in beating around the bush,” said AIDS-Free World spokesman Stephen Lewis at a Toronto press conference. He charged that Obama Administration’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief “is being flat-lined for at least the next two years.” Lewis said AIDS groups were treating five million patients, but that another nine million needed to be in programs. “There are AIDS projects, run by other NGOs [non-governmental organizations], where new patients cannot be enrolled unless someone dies.”

But if the poor, sick, and hungry are going begging, not so Africa’s militaries.

According to Daniel Volman, director of the African Security Research Project, the White House is following the same policies as the Bush Administration vis-à-vis Africa. “Indeed, the Obama Administration is seeking to expand U.S. military activities on the continent even further,” says Volman.

In its 2011 budget, the White House asked for over $80 million in military programs for Africa, while freezing or reducing aid packages aimed at civilians.

The major vehicle for this is the U.S.’s African Command (AFRICOM) founded in 2008. Through the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative, AFRICOM is training troops from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Chad. The supposed target of all this is the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Meghreb (AQIM), but while AQIM is certainly troublesome—it sets off bombs and kidnaps people— it is small, scattered, and doesn’t pose a serious threat to any of the countries involved.

The worry is that the various militaries being trained by AFRICOM could end up being used against internal dissidents. Tuaregs, for instance, are engaged in a long-running, low-level insurgency against the Mali government, which is backing a French plan to mine uranium in the Sahara. Might Morocco use the training to attack the Polisario Front in the disputed Western Sahara? Mauritanians complain that the “terrorist” label has been used to jail political opponents of the government.

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said the U.S. was seeking to bolster Nigeria’s “ability to combat violent extremism within its borders.” That might put AFRICOM in the middle of a civil war between ruling elites in Lagos and their transnational oil company allies, and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Delta, which is demanding an end to massive pollution and a fair cut of oil revenues.

The National Energy Policy Development Groups estimates that by 2015 as much as 25 percent of U.S. oil imports will come from Africa.

So far, AFRICOM’s track record has been one disaster after another. It supported Ethiopia’s intervention in the Somalia civil war, and helped to overthrow the moderate Islamic Courts Union. It is now fighting a desperate rear-guard action against a far more extremist grouping, the al-Shabaab. AFRICOM also helped coordinate a Ugandan Army attack on the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—Operation Lightning Thunder— that ended up killing thousands of civilians.

The U.S. has been careful to keep a low profile in all this. “We don’t want to see our guys going in and getting whacked,” Volman quotes one U.S. AFRICOM officer. “We want Africans to go in.”

And presumably get “whacked.”

AFRICOM’s Operation Flintlock 2010, which ran from May 3-22, was based in Burkina Faso. Besides the militaries of 10 African nations, it included 600 U.S. Special Forces and elite units from France, the Netherlands, and Spain. Yes, there are other arms pushers out there, and the list reads like an economic who’s who: France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, Sweden, and Israel. Some 70 percent of the world’s arms trade is aimed at developing countries.

So, is AFRICOM about fighting terrorism, or oil, gas and uranium? Nicole Lee, the executive director of Trans Africa, the leading African American organization focusing on Africa has no doubts: “This [AFRICOM] is nothing short of a sovereignty and resource grab.”

And who actually benefits from this militarization of the continent? As Nigerian journalist Dulue Mbachu warns, “Increased U.S. military presence in Africa may simply serve to protect unpopular regimes that are friendly to its interests, as was the case during the Cold War, while Africa slips further into poverty.”

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